Friday, November 6, 2015

Shooting Spaceships: What Lens Angle Will You Use?

Hi all,

A bit of technical info today!  How to shoot a shot of your spaceship that's good looking.  This is a text version of a part of the tutorial I made a few years ago called "How I Make My Space Scenes", starting at about 16 minutes in:

So, you have a beautiful 3D model of your favorite starship in your software and now you want to shoot it effectively in a manner which is as aesthetically pleasing as can be.  There is a pretty simple method to make sure that that happens.

There are at least two main factors to consider when you are shooting your ship: 1.) Lens Angle of View; and 2.) Camera Location Relative to the Subject.


As with any form of visual art, a rudimentary understanding of how light works and how perspective affects the appearance of objects is necessary.  In this case, an understanding of Angle of View (AOV) in photography is important.  Please note the pretty good summation of this here.

To sum up, however, use a narrower AOV than normally used in photography of other objects.  My theory on why this is is because these starships are designed on orthographic drafting boards and not in perspective.  Therefore, the lines are more beautiful with less perspective.  That's my working theory on this phenomenon, anyway.

It should be noted that this phenomenon covers other stuff, too. For example, particularly in the 80's, cinematographers would film actors' faces with extremely narrow angle lenses from far away to flatten the features of the face, making it appear more beautiful.  Perhaps perspective affects the beauty of things in other ways, too, but we shall leave that for others to debate. :)

To demonstrate the difference, the Adamant in orthographic and perspective views, from the same exact camera position:

Perspective: 35mm lens.  It appears we are directly in front of the ship, viewing it at a slight angle

Orthographic view from exact same position
Note the difference between the two views.  In 35mm lens angle, the front of the ship dominates the image, all but completely obscuring the aft section of the ship.  Of the two angles, the orthographic view is more visually pleasing simply because it shows off the contours of the design much more clearly.  But, the issue with orthographic view is that there is no depth.  The ship could be traveling toward us, but it theoretically never will reach us or appear to change shape or apparent size because orthographic view mashes all depth data into a zero sum.

A happy medium must exist, right?  It does!  But it's a bit more involved than simply using the same lens angle for every single shot of a starship.

Most starships appear more beautiful when you make the aft sections look bigger in comparison to the front.  So, pick a lens angle which does this for you.  If you are looking at the front of a starship, you typically want to use a narrower angle lens, so that the back of the ship appears relatively larger than the front, despite being in perspective.  Some trial and error in your 3D software will reap results.  I have noted in the case of the Adamant that depending on what angle I'm viewing her from, a different AOV reaps different emotional responses.


Starships tend to have good angles and bad ones to view them from.  The placement of the camera will generally is dictated by this.

Let's take Star Trek, for an example of this.  I cannot include images of Star Trek ships on this post because of copyright, but I think you fellow nerds out there will know what I'm talking about.  I found several times in my studies that the design of Federation starships has good angles and bad ones.  The Enterprise D had very few good angles to shoot from.  The design of the ship was extremely saucer heavy and it was a chore to keep that saucer from dominating the shots it appeared in.  The Enterprise E, on the other hand, had a somewhat more interesting and aesthetically pleasing shape, at least strictly from a cinematographer's point of view.

Your ship may have good angles and bad ones to view from.   An understanding on where to place your shot will give you the tools necessary to make it work.

Generally speaking, looking up at a starship makes it look more heroic and impressive.  Looking down at a starship makes it look more helpless and vulnerable.



So, combining what we know about AOV and camera placement, how would we form a shot of a starship like the Adamant?

If a shot is a single sentence in a movie, the question you need to ask yourself is: What are you trying to convey in the shot?

For instance, if I had a smaller shuttle craft approaching the Adamant from the front, how much movement I had on the scene, as well as how dynamic it appears, would be affected by the lens angle and camera position.

If I wanted the smaller ship to zoom by and disappear toward the larger Adamant, and I wanted the Adamant to appear majestic, heroic and large, I might choose a 50mm lens angle and position the camera looking up at the ventral starboard bow.  This angle makes the ship look huge, heroic and impressive.

Forward ventral starboard: 50mm works best if I want to convey dynamic motion and size difference:

50mm angle of view, front starboard quarter

Forward, ventral starboard: 120mm works as well, but would make the Adamant appear more imposing on the scene, because it takes up more screen space.  The aft section looks beefier, less diminutive compared to the front. 

120mm lens angle: any ship would not move as fast toward the Adamant, and would appear larger than it really is
Both shots are effective and either could probably be used, but I would almost certainly opt for the 120mm angle simply to follow my rule of narrower angle views from the front.  I'd just have the shuttle move faster. :)

From the forward dorsal view, I have discovered that the ship always looks better with a very narrow angle lens.  The narrower, the better (even up to 200mm), as it is not a very flattering angle to view the ship from.

The overall shape of the Adamant is a hammerhead design with very wide reaching albatross wings in the back.  This shape does not look good from above in anything perspective except at very narrow lens angles.  It's even worse from the front, because it makes that nose look too big again.

Not the lady's best angle...

It takes 150mm lens angle to make the view work more beautifully
This angle would be used to depict the ship in a more unflattering way.  Perhaps if she were damaged, or in a more helpless position.  Attacking ships would be shown from this angle, diving down at her.  The problem, however, is that to make the ship more pleasing to the eye, I would have to use a very narrow angle lens, which crushes perspective.

Aft shots require that I use a wider angle lens to make that nose less imposing.  Again, if I wanted to establish the ship as heroic, impressive and "good", I would probably show it from a lower angle in the aft.

75mm aft ventral shot.  The ship appears to stretch a little off into the depths of space

Conversely, if I wanted to show the ship from the aft dorsal region, I would use a narrower angle lens because this angle would make the engines appear too small in relation to the upper section.

120mm lens angle to keep the engines from completely disappearing at this angle
Hopefully this admittedly dry post helps a few people understand the fundamentals of shooting starships.  Of course, each spaceship has a different shape, and therefore would have different angles which would look good.  Trial and error is essential.  But hopefully this gives an idea on how different angles affect the choices we make in the mechanical nature of our cameras as well.

Thanks, and have a great day!


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